- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The sheriff in Williamsburg County created fake police reports saying people had their identities stolen for a friend who ran a credit-repair business, according to federal prosecutors.

Sheriff Michael Johnson and businessman Lester Woods were each indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Johnson, 38, created the fake police reports so customers of Woods‘ credit-repair business could claim their overdue bills were caused by identity fraud, according to the indictments.

The fake reports kept more than $11 million in bad debts off more than 130 credit reports from March 2012 until last August, prosecutors said.

Johnson didn’t return a message left at the sheriff’s office and there was no answer at his home. His lawyer, Debbie Barbier, issued a statement to WPDE-TV saying Johnson respects the justice system and looks forward to having his case heard in court.

A telephone listing for Woods, 48, had been disconnected. Court papers did not indicate whether he had a lawyer.

If convicted, Johnson and Woods each face up to 20 years in prison.

Gov. Nikki Haley issued an executive order Wednesday night suspended Johnson from office until his legal fate is determined.

Johnson is the sixth sheriff in South Carolina’s 46 counties to face criminal charges in the past four years. A seventh sheriff died of a heart attack as an investigation into his finances was wrapping up.

Johnson became Williamsburg County sheriff in April 2010 when the former sheriff, Kelvin Washington, was named U.S. Marshal for South Carolina. Johnson was elected to a four-year term in November 2012. He grew up in Kingstree and worked at the sheriff’s office for 15 years before becoming sheriff.

It had been well over a decade since a sitting South Carolina sheriff had been indicted when Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was charged with dozens of federal drug and racketeering charges in May 2010. Since then, four more sheriffs have faced state misdemeanor charges, three of them accused of misusing state inmate labor. Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth and Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin pleaded guilty, but avoided jail time. Sheriff Sam Parker of Chesterfield County is awaiting trial on charges of misusing inmate labor.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon was charged with third-degree assault and battery after admitting he slapped a handcuffed man in the face after the man had led his deputies on a 120-mph chase in January 2012. The misdemeanor charge was eligible for pre-trial intervention and he remains in office.

Officials in Orangeburg County sued the estate of the late Sheriff Larry Williams, saying he took more than $200,000 in public money and used it on personal expenses. Williams died before the case could be prosecuted.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP

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